Indigenous women on the Prairies deserve reproductive freedom

To believe that life is truly sacred means acknowledging that the bodies of Indigenous women are no one's territory but our own, say Erica Violet Lee and Tasha Spillett.

2 women take on Sask. Party leadership candidate's claim 'First Nations don't believe in abortion'

An anti-abortion group has quoted Rob Clarke, a former MP for northern Saskatchewan and a Sask. Party leadership candidate, as telling them 'First Nations don't believe in abortion. I'm First Nations and I don't believe in abortion.' (CBC)

As Indigenous women, we understand why it can feel like a waste of our time to participate in electoral politics with governments that have little to do with our sovereignty as pre-existing nations.

But as Indigenous women in the Prairies, we know how often governments block access to the most basic reproductive health care for which we have always had rights and freedoms.

While widely understood that the issue of abortion's legality is no longer up for public discussion in Canadian governments, it's incorrect to believe that we are all sorted when it comes to issues of access to reproductive health care.

This week, former Conservative MP Rob Clarke, a candidate to lead the Saskatchewan Party and become the province's next premier, told an anti-abortion group "First Nations don't believe in abortion."

This came in addition to fellow leadership candidate and MLA Ken Cheveldayoff's telling media that even in situations of sexual assault, abortion should not be allowed unless a woman's life was at risk. Cheveldayoff changed this stance the next day to say any victim of sexual assault has the right to make a choice to have an abortion or not.

Sask. Party leadership candidate Ken Cheveldayoff changed his stance, telling media that in some circumstances abortions are necessary, including for victims of sexual assault or when a woman's life is in jeopardy. (CBC)

Coerced sterilizations

The violation of Indigenous freedoms regarding reproductive health care in the Prairies is nothing new, and was a key method in the attempted destruction of Indigenous nations. Just this October, a lawsuit was filed by two Indigenous women who experienced coerced sterilization after giving birth at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, without giving proper and informed consent. At the time of filing, at least 20 women from various regions of Saskatchewan had signed on.

Last year, community members launched a program called Moon Time Sisters to bring in donations of menstrual supplies to be distributed in Northern Saskatchewan.

People who menstruate often lose days of school for lack of supplies, or due to period shame and stigma resulting from the intrusions of Christianity and residential schools.

Indigenous women and girls — especially those on reserve and in rural communities — face barriers to accessing basic health care; and yes, access to abortions is a necessary part of the basic health care package that we deserve.

Before and through colonization, Nêhiyawak held teachings of what medicines to use to induce abortion and control birth (you surely didn't think all science and medicine were imported from Europe, did you?). Across the world and at home in Saskatchewan, we're reclaiming the science and ceremony of midwifery as a thwart to colonialism.

Indigenous women with medical knowledges such as these were (and are) considered great threats to the Canadian project of replacing Indigenous governance structures with men who claim to speak for us, but too often merely uphold the silencing of our voices and attempt to control our bodies.

Closure of STC affects access

Problems with the Saskatchewan Party government do not end here. Its heavy support for extractive industry ignores the gendered health outcomes of environmental violence on Indigenous women and girls, from social impacts of male-dominated resource camps to increased miscarriage rates from pollution.

The Wall government's devastation of social services has tangible impacts on the lives of women, from cuts to disability assistance, to the defunding of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, ending bus service to rural communities.

Indigenous women have already raised concerns that shutting down transit has raised the risks for those already most vulnerable to assault and violence. Surgical abortion services are also currently only available in Saskatoon and Regina, making cost and transportation two huge barriers to choice in Saskatchewan.

And if we are serious about bringing an end to the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women, girls, transgender, and two-spirit people, we must support the rights of sex workers to their own health, safety, and justice.

To believe that life is truly sacred means acknowledging that the bodies of Indigenous women are no one's territory but our own.

Honouring this means an end to the violence inflicted upon us, whether through anti-choice policies, lack of access to safe health care, the valuation of mining interests over our well-being, or the state-sanctioned poverty that restricts our lives.

Erica Violet Lee is Nêhiyaw from Saskatoon. She is an MA student at the University of Toronto. Tasha Spillett is Nêhiyaw/Trinidadian. She is an educator and PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan.